The Strangest White House Correspondents' Dinner Ever

The strangest White House Correspondents' Dinner ever

On Saturday, March 15, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt arrived at the Willard Hotel at 7 p.m. and was greeted by the U.S. Navy Band, which played "Hail to the Chief" and "Anchors Aweigh." He was then moved from his wheelchair into a special chair brought over from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the White House Correspondents' Association's annual dinner. Seated between outgoing association President Thomas F. Reynolds of United Press, and his successor, John C. O'Brien of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Roosevelt laughed at the reporters' jokes and sang along loudly when George H. O'Connor crooned his usual medley of Irish and popular songs. While Roosevelt ate South American honeydew, supreme of sea bass Victoria au crouton, and breast of guinea hen forestière, the Navy Band played and a chorus from the Naval School of Music sang. Then came a faux newsreel produced by Paramount, which included a segment making fun of the Lend-Lease Act debate. It was nine months before Pearl Harbor.

The film ended at 9:30. Time for the president to take the spotlight. And radically change the mood. It was time to talk of war, on what was to become, and remains today, the strangest—and most important—night in the dinner's history.

When President Obama strides to the microphone at the Washington Hilton this Saturday, he'll be going for laughs. He'll be poking fun both at himself and his political foes. No one expects him to address the nation. Or promise higher taxes. Or call for sacrifice. But that's what Roosevelt did, boldly using the dinner to prepare the nation for entry into World War II. And, although the event was opened to live TV coverage when I was vice president of the association in 1993 (I'm now the unofficial historian) and has since become a cable fixture, 74 years later, no White House Correspondents' Dinner has drawn a larger broadcast audience than the one held on that pre-television, pre-Internet night.

The correspondents back then certainly didn't foresee how important the evening would turn out to be. They thought the event they were staging would be just like the 19 before it—an all-male gathering for an amiable mélange of soaring opera, naughty ballads, gag newsreels, hearty laughter, and generous drinking.

But that all changed about 30 hours before the dinner, when the correspondents gathered in the Oval Office for a presidential press conference, and FDR asked if he could make a nationally broadcast address at their dinner. Three days earlier, he had signed into law his much-debated Lend-Lease Act, permitting him to send badly needed aid, munitions, and equipment to Britain, China, the Soviet Union, and other countries under siege by Nazi Germany and Japan. Now, he wanted to tell the nation—and the world—what it meant.

The association's president had no idea how to host an evening that would now be an odd mix of slapstick and earnest talk of war.

Reynolds had no choice but to let FDR speak at the dinner, though back then presidents typically didn't. But he had no idea how to proceed with an evening that now would be an odd mix of slapstick and earnest talk of war. He resolved simply to work the entertainers in around the president's address.

Arrayed in front of Roosevelt were 21 long tables butting against an extended head table where 73 VIPs were seated, including Vice President Henry Wallace, members of the Cabinet, the House speaker, and the Senate majority leader. The other 600 guests included top publishers and radio executives, big names from the entertainment and business worlds, and some two dozen lawmakers. But given the topic of Roosevelt's address, the more newsworthy guests included Viscount Halifax, the new British ambassador; Otto G. Janssen, consular secretary at the German Embassy; and Kaname Wakasugi, minister-counselor in the Japanese Embassy.

Over at Table 6, 32-year-old Rep. Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas was seated across from Kurt Sell of the German news bureau. Before coming to the dinner, Sell—a roly-poly, friendly regular at FDR's press conferences who was known to some as "Hitler's press agent"—dictated an advance copy of Roosevelt's address to Berlin by phone. He then watched the early entertainment and ate. But columnist Raymond Clapper reported that Sell "is a gentleman and quietly left a few moments before Mr. Roosevelt spoke."

The president started almost casually. "This dinner of the White House Correspondents' Association is unique," he said. "It is the first one at which I have made a speech in all these eight years. It differs from the press conferences that you and I hold twice a week, for you cannot ask me any questions tonight and everything that I have to say is word for word on the record." (Most of Roosevelt's press conferences could be used for background information only.)

He then shifted into a somber assessment of the state of the war: "The world is no longer in doubt. This decision is the end of any attempts at appeasement in our land, the end of urging us to get along with dictators, the end of compromise with tyranny and the forces of opposition."

Lest there be any confusion about whether neutrality had been set aside, he said: "The concepts of 'business as usual,' of 'normalcy,' must be forgotten until the task is finished. Yes, it is an all-out effort, and nothing short of an all-out effort will win." Then, his voice rising, the president called on Americans to "make sacrifices," warning them, "you will feel the impact of this gigantic effort in your daily lives."

The British Broadcasting Corporation made the speech its top item in all home and overseas broadcasts, translating it into 34 languages. It was not an exaggeration when Washington Post columnist Barnet Nover wrote that night that Roosevelt's "voice reached out to every corner of the continent and to the outer-most ends of the earth."

The reaction from abroad was swift. "Thank you, America," gushed one BBC announcer. "All in Britain who listened to the president's speech were so filled with emotion that we would be unable to say more than just a plain simple 'thank you.'"Š" In China, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek thanked FDR, saying the people of China were "immeasurably heartened." In Yugoslavia, papers printed the speech in full.

It quickly became clear that the Axis leaders of Germany, Japan, and Italy also were listening. Roosevelt topped all the front pages in Tokyo. "This rabid speech confirms that the United States has at last come forward on the active stage of the World War," wrote Asahi, a Japanese newspaper. In Italy, a member of parliament concluded, "The United States is now at war with the Axis." Jay Flippen, a vaudevillian, popular singer, Broadway actor, and sometime radio voice of the New York Yankees, emceed the dinner. (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

The speech also affected the assembled correspondents. While today's journalists are trained never to react to a politician's substantive remarks, the reporters at that dinner interrupted the 35-minute speech 34 times with applause that often included whoops and cheers. But when it was done, and Roosevelt turned the microphone over to emcee Jay Flippen, a vaudevillian, popular singer, Broadway actor, and sometime radio voice of the New York Yankees, the correspondents did not rush to their typewriters. They poured more drinks, lit more cigarettes, and settled back for the rest of the entertainment. A magician. A harmonica artist. A flamenco dancer. An opera singer. A blues singer. A comedian. The show lasted a full hour. FDR and the reporters stayed for it all, as the more than 100 million who had heard the radio broadcast absorbed what they had learned.

There would be no dinner in 1942. Instead, there would be war. And many in the correspondents' ranks—including O'Brien, who had that night been installed as the association's president—would be in uniform.